Emily@BelgianSeams

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A new (old) summer dress

Have you looked at your UFOs and/or unworn past sewing projects recently? Here is a very short story about how my new dress of dreams was reborn from a simple alteration.

2014
1)
I found a big kafkan/kimono thing in the fleamarket. It was horrible but the fabric was dreamy. I wish I had a picture of how it was – you’ll just have to believe me.

2) Then I cut it up and made a BHL Flora dress wearable muslin out of it. I did wear it a bit but it quickly became one of those dresses that never gets worn. It looked ‘unbalanced’ to me, I always wanted the skirt to be a bit longer, and I was constantly pulling it down. And for some reason I made the skirt lining longer than the actual skirt which looked a bit silly in this case.

3) With the rest of the fabric I tried to make some Grainline Maritime shorts which were a massive fail because I didn’t check the fit.

4) I never got around to sorting them out and the shorts sat in my UFO pile for 4 (!!) years. The dress lingered in the wardrobe.

2018
5) I catch sight of the dress and think ‘aaaw this dress is too nice not to wear, hold up – why don’t I just try and make some kind of hem extension thing with the fabric from the UFO shorts – this is so obvious, I could have done this four years ago!’
Some unpicking and careful cutting later to eek out just enough fabric and I have a lengthened dress that I love love love.

      

Moral of the story – sometimes it’s the small changes that make all the difference. #Deep
The End.

 

Going down the street in my Kalle shirt

I wanted to make something I really needed in my wardrobe and at the same time make it using some of the ridiculous amount of fabric scraps of varying sizes I have leftover from years of past projects (four boxes full to be precise). I was also really in the mood for a pattern that holds your hand with great instructions that you can follow to the letter and tick off the steps in manageable chunks.

Enter the Closet Case Patterns Kalle shirt! I’ve been a big fan of Heather Lou’s blog for years but (shockingly) I’ve yet to sew one of her patterns – until now! I knew Heather’s instructions would be shit hot good and I wasn’t disappointed.

I squeezed the pieces for view A out of bits of green and red linen. I just about had enough of each colour but I had to get creative and do some colour blocking as I didn’t have a big enough piece for the whole back pattern piece – but I really like the finished effect! And it feels good to make a dent in those boxes of fabric scraps (see musings about sewing, sustainability, and fabric). It’s also a good challenge of your creativity to restrict yourself to using up what you have already to make something. What will I make with the much smaller pile of even tinier bits of this green and red linen I now have?!

I really like the resulting shirt, and the only modification I made was to redraft the hem so that the dip is not as exaggerated. I find the collar is slightly too tight around the neck on me when buttoned up. So I’m going to try and make it a bit looser for the next one.



I was first drawn to the Kalle shirt pattern as recently I’ve seen a lot of people wearing shirts with this dipped hem style and the loose contemporary cut. As I was finishing the shirt this week I was thinking about how interesting the sewing world is, both as its own entity but also how it lives alongside the more ‘mainstream’ fashion industry. As I was thinking about this I was listening to some podcasts. Fittingly, an episode of BBC Woman’s Hour (if you don’t listen to this programme I highly recommend it!) came on which looked at the shift towards online retail over the last 15 years and the knock-on effect this has had on town centres in the UK and the people employed in the retail sector.

It kind of stopped me in my tracks as while I don’t support the environmental and social impact of fast fashion and the way it pushes us to over-consume, I also don’t want to see town centres turn into desolate ghost towns (or for people to lose their jobs).

I was really nostalgic listening to the older people they interviewed who were describing how their town centres had changed as their favourite shops have disappeared. It made me think of the social importance of ‘going into town’, ‘going up/down the street’, or ‘going round the shops’. I remember the first time I was allowed to go ‘down the street’ in my small hometown with my best friend as a child. Even though we were just going to Woolworths it felt like the biggest step into adulthood. I remembered going round the shops with my Granny in her town and how she knew everyone and would get all the news from people as we went round. I remember being a teenager in the pre-internet age and going round ‘the shops’ on a rare trip to Glasgow and how it felt so exhilarating as it was a way of exploring the world beyond your own immediate experience – stand out memories were hanging out in Borders books (RIP) and spending all the money I had in the world (£70) on a black duffle coat from Cult – I LOVED that coat.

But whereas big cities still have relatively buoyant shops, and some smaller towns have thriving small businesses, these tend to be in more affluent places. There are a huge chunk of medium-sized towns where the town centre has simply died as it can’t compete with the bigger shops in a nearby city and because of online shopping.

The programme didn’t actually talk about the environmental impact of the shift to online deliveries at all which I think was a big oversight. While online shopping has brought about lots of benefits to many people who might not have been physically able to get out to the shops easily before, I can’t help but think that generally speaking if you are going to consume fast fashion then it is better to do it in a physical shop where goods are delivered in bulk, rather than having thousands of individual van deliveries being made to each customer’s house – and back again when people send things back. Of course, online shopping is not just about clothing, we now get all sorts of things delivered from the internet (including fabric and patterns!) when just 15/20 years ago we would probably have got them from a bricks and mortar shop.

I don’t think the solution is about trying to go back to how town centres looked in the 1980s/1990s/2000s, but we can’t just leave town centres to rot either.

In Dumfries, Scotland – very near where I grew up – there is a really interesting initiative called the ‘The MidSteeple Quarter’ where residents are campaigning to buy-out abandoned properties in the town’s neglected town centre with the aim of turning them into a hub of social enterprises and small businesses. In Scotland many rural communities (such as the famous Isle of Eigg) have been left with no other option but to fundraise huge amounts of money to buy their way out of a feudal system of land ownership which is still a hugely controversial issue in Scotland. But while land reform issues tend to focus on remote areas, if the community group in Dumfries succeeds it would be the first community buy-out in Scotland of a high street!

I think this sounds so brilliant and it would help bring back more jobs to the town and simply improve community life by creating places where people can come together.

I’m imagining a near future where going into town/round the shops involved both visiting shops selling things people really need, but also other community initiatives that bring people together over activities that are not just about shopping. I’m imagining repair cafés, sewing cafés, places where you could go and learn pattern cutting…

Imagine if schemes for textile collection and re-distribution to locally-based sewing businesses were common features of high streets – maybe I would have somewhere to take some of those fabric scraps in my four boxes!

Fast fabric

The fact that global clothing production has more than doubled since 2000 with devastating environmental and social consequences is one of the things that keeps many of us sewists motivated to stay off the high street and at our sewing machines. While sewing your own clothes can definitely be an environmental win, with the things we make tending to be kept and looked after for longer, we are of course not in any way ‘exempt’ from the environmental and social impact of the textile industry just because we have cut out the garment industry stage.

From sourcing the fibres (natural and synthetic), spinning them into yarn, weaving and knitting the yarns into fabric, and finishing the fabric through dying and printing processes, the textile supply chain – and by extension the garment industry – is made up of different and complex production stages with multiple levels of subcontracting fragmented across many factories and international locations (often located in the developing world). A lack of transparency and traceability is rife. Research conducted by campaign group Fashion Revolution into how much information 100 of the biggest global fashion brands disclose shows that none of the brands analysed publish their raw material suppliers so there is no way to know where the cotton, wool, or other fibres used in their textiles come from.

Environmental pollution from textile products occurs at the manufacture stage, the use stage and when clothing is discarded. From the hazardous chemicals used in the production processes to the dyes that give us all those deep colours polluting rivers, to toxic pollution from viscose factories and the huge amounts of water used to grow even organic cotton. Not to mention the climate impact of producing so much polyester and of shipping all these textiles around the world. Much of the work carried out in the textile industry – whether in fields or in factories – is carried out in low-income countries like Uzbekistan or Bangladesh, where there are often a lack of workers’ rights, child labour, and unsafe working conditions.

So while it is well known that we have a fast fashion system, it is impossible to separate the fabric industry from that – so I’d say we have a pretty fast fabric system too.

—–

But before we get too despondent though, we should listen to the latest episode of the Love to Sew podcast on Sustainability and Sewing which presenters Helen and Caroline brilliantly kick off with a pat on the back for sewists. They remind us that making the choice to make your own clothes is in of itself an act of taking charge of your own consumption, and you shouldn’t underestimate that. I think this is important to keep in mind when talking about individual behaviour and how it impacts the environment as so often we get bogged down with the fact that what we are doing is not ‘environmentally perfect’ – as, you know, that involves not existing.

As someone who is really interested in protecting the environment and stopping climate change who also likes to sew, the topic of this episode is something I think about A LOT. In my last post I said I wanted to write more about this topic on my blog this year, and listening to the podcast spurred me on to gather together my thoughts.

I really liked the way they presented the podcast as it was not alarmist, preachy or judgemental. I think they did a great job at recognising that within the sewing community there is clearly a huge diversity of people – and some people might never have thought about sustainability much before, and that’s ok. Helen and Caroline focused mostly on what we as sewists can do to make our sewing practice kinder to the world by being less wasteful in our processes (with some great ideas for using fabric scraps!).

The supply chain

In the podcast Helen and Caroline also talk about being more mindful about the choices we make when buying fabric. They correctly acknowledge that there is no easy way to do this and that even natural fabrics have an environmental and social impact. This is a great read about hunting for fabric in a wholesale overstock warehouse that illustrates the difficulties fabric suppliers have finding information about where the products they source actually come from.

While I think it is important to support fabric and clothing brands that are leading the way by being transparent and trying to source as ‘ethically’ as possible, I do believe that we need political changes to ensure companies across the whole supply chain stick to binding rules about how fabric is produced – and how workers are treated.

I don’t in any way have all the answers or an easy solution to how to regulate this very complex global supply chain but I think we can’t rely on brands to act only when it affects their bottom line or to make incremental voluntary changes.

Helen and Caroline discuss two examples of such voluntary schemes: the organic certifications OEKO-TEX and GOTS. Both are voluntary sustainability standards for the garment sector and as this is an area I’ve recently been researching I thought I’d share this useful list I found, it is a non-exhaustive analysis of all the different voluntary sustainability standards in the garment sector (page 32-33) which was carried out for the European Commission. It’s really useful as it is essentially a comparison of how much each standard focuses on social, environmental, quality or ethics criteria. Spoiler alert: none of these labels are perfect and there are few voluntary standards that primarily focus on the environmental impact of the textile industry. For example, the OEKO-Tex label is actually only 27% environmental (1% social, 53% quality). The GOTS label is only 33% environmental (51% social, 5% quality, 2% ethics).

I also think it is really important to go behind these labels to find out what they actually represent beyond what they promise. This is exactly what a group of French investigative journalists recently did by investigating the Better Cotton Initiative label. In the documentary ‘Coton : l’envers de nos tee-shirts’ they show that the lack of traceability along the supply chain means that products sold under the Better Cotton Initiative label may in fact have been made with ‘conventional’ cotton – which could have been grown in Uzbekistan or other countries where child and forced labour is rife and the use of harmful pesticides is unregulated. If you understand French I really recommend this documentary! It is an even more in-depth look than True Cost and it really shows that in the textile industry country of origin labels are in many cases meaningless.

I’m not highlighting this to suggest you shouldn’t buy fabric with these labels – on the contrary, the fact is that these types of schemes and labels are essentially all we have! My point is that they need to be improved so they truly stand for what they appear to, and for that to happen I think governments around the world need to put laws in place to make the global textile supply chain truly transparent.

It’s quite shocking when I look at my fabric stash to think that I have no way of tracing where the fibres were grown to make all the fabric I have or where it was spun etc. Even if I had kept a track of all the shops where I had bought my fabric from over the years, I don’t know how far I would get trying to find out through them where they source from.

Dealing with the excess

At the other end of the supply chain there are lots of initiatives that are trying to deal with textile/clothing/fabric waste/surplus. Two examples from Belgium are the upcycling brand Wear a Story and the clothing rental brand Tale Me. I’m not aware of any specific initiatives in Brussels or Belgium that offer solutions to textile waste for sewists in the same vein as Fabcycle in Vancouver which was discussed in the episode on the Love to Sew podcast. I definitely want to learn more about this project, it sounds really interesting!

However, as the technology to deal with textile waste is still not fully developed I do believe that any ‘end of the chain’ solutions must be combined with regulation to reduce the sheer quantity of fabric and textile production altogether and ensure brands get hazardous and toxic chemicals out of the supply chain (which will make them more suitable for recycling). In the same vein, I think that while it is good to have solutions such as laundry bag filters to help stop the microfibres in synthetic clothing ending up in our oceans, at the same time we need to regulate the upstream fabric production processes that use these dangerous microfibres in the first place.

Given the overall environmental impact of the industry, as long as we don’t have fully developed textile recycling solutions, I also think that the fact that you can donate/reuse/recycle old clothes/textiles should not be used as a blank cheque to keep consuming such huge amounts of textiles. The world is drowning in textiles. One example of this is how much of the clothes we donate end up flooding markets in low income countries. I recommend this radio documentary and this excellent documentary (in French) about the impact of donated clothes from Europe on Africa.

Sewists have the power

At the moment textiles might not yet be at the forefront of many people’s minds when they think of the most polluting industries that we need to rein in – even among ‘environmentalists’ – and that is why I think it is really important for us as sewists to sound the alarm and raise awareness about the world’s unsustainable textile supply chain.

In a recent post, the Fold Line set out the many benefits of sewing, from how it allows us to be creative to how it can help with mental health, and I agree with every one of them.  To that list I would also add that sewing is a practical way to actively reflect on the impact an activity that we as humans do everyday – clothing ourselves – is having on the only planet we have – and lots of people.

Sewing is our gateway to think about how the world works. Sewing is politics in action!

As for my own sewing sustainability situation: as I’m slowing at a very slow pace at the moment I have plenty of fabric to last me for a good while and I don’t see me suddenly needing to buy more fabric, I certainly don’t need any! I am going to try and be more informed when I do buy new fabric and I would love to learn about dyeing my own fabric too. I’m not going to set any strict rules on myself as I just know that is unrealistic, I’m sure I’m likely to buy some cheap fabric of unknown origins at some point in a near future….In terms of dealing with my waste – I have FOUR big boxes of fabric scraps that are destined to be pockets, facings, yokes….but again I think it is going to take me a while to get through them…to be continued…

If anyone has any good resources for reading more about any of these topics or if you know of any interesting projects in Belgium please get in touch!

Plume de paon

Hello internet sewing world!

It’s been a while since I posted anything here, but today I’m clearing the dust off my post editor and reacquainting myself with the art of being a ruthless sub-editor to myself.

The usual life reasons have got in the way of blogging (and sewing) over the last few months and when I did sew I didn’t feel motivated to take pictures let alone write about it. Hopefully I’ll be a more prolific sewer and blogger in 2018! Quality not quantity though, right? I might yet post about some of the things I made, or I’ll just turn the page, but for now I want to share my most recent make which I can’t wait to wear when the weather gets a bit warmer.

This is the Papercut Patterns Clover dress which I first made in 2014 (!) and then a second time in 2016 when I made some fit adaptions. So making this for the third time was relatively relaxing as I knew it would (in theory) fit. That said, the fabric for this dress was quite hard to work with and I really had to take my time to make sure the neckline, hem, and sleeve hems were finished as neatly as possible. It’s a woven rayon-type fabric with a bit of stretch in it. And I think I may have bought it at the Fabric Sales a few years ago but I’m not 100% sure.

My idea for this dress was to make a really comfy but smart dress with nice topstitching. Something I might categorise as a ‘basic’. But then I remembered I’m not so into basics and sewed on these peacock feather embroidered patches around the neckline because they make me really happy every time I look at them.

I definitely recommend this pattern; there is so much scope for making a great feature out of the ‘V’ bodice piece. I wanted to put the peacock feathers in the V but they actually looked better round the neckline.

See below for some (slightly awkward) self timer shots of me in the dress. You can tell it’s been a while since I blogged as I don’t remember how to take pictures of myself without feeling like a plonker.

So hopefully I’ll be back soon and I won’t let Belgian Seams get so dusty again! This year I’d like to write more on here about slow fashion and the environmental and social impact of the clothing and fabric supply chain. I love to write and by day I work in an environmental NGO so it seems like a nice idea to try and bring my interests together more on the blog.

I also realised this year that I really value blogs and the long(ish)-form. I’ve tried to dip my toes in the Instagram pool but so far I’ve not really taken to it. That might change but when I’ve gone on it so far although I’ve seen some lovely things and it’s great to get peeks into others’ sewing, the sheer amount of content on the platform is quite overwhelming to me.

That’s all for now, I’m off to eat yummy vegan pancakes – I used this recipe but I changed the soy milk for oat milk as I hate soy milk. And instead of vegetable oil I used olive oil as I didn’t have any vegetable oil.

 

 

Éléonore

This is the ‘Robe Éléonore’ from the République du Chiffon book ‘Un été de couture’. It’s been on my to-sew list for a long time. The cross-over bodice is such a great blank slate to play with. I was rummaging around in one of my (three) boxes of scrap fabric that I don’t know what to do with and this mustard wool with chevrons on it jumped out at me and I immediately thought of the Éléonore dress. The blue fabric is some chambray I bought a few years ago for the Archer shirt. Nothing much to say about this dress other than I really love it!